‘Kissaten’, or ‘kissa’ for short, basically means a Western style café or coffee shop in Japan and it has come to refer specifically to retro-style coffee shops with a nostalgic atmosphere and décor straight from the mid to late 20th century.
The cosy, relaxed atmosphere is ideal for enjoying a cup of freshly brewed coffee or speciality tea along with a light meal and delicious desserts.
Unlike modern cafés, kissaten often emphasise a more tranquil and traditionally refined ambiance with soft lighting, seating booths and vintage furniture. This all goes toward creating the ‘retro’ feel I mentioned and takes people back to what felt like the simpler, more carefree days of their youth.
These retro interiors really set kissaten apart from other restaurants and cafés. The charming, unique style has recently given them a renewed popularity across all ages and, dare I say it, a certain trendy-ness among young Japanese.
These days it seems that informal dining is the preferred choice for most people, being quick and easy to negotiate. However Japan seems to be one of the last places where a little formality is still appreciated.
Kissaten seem to combine the elegance of formal dining with just the right amount of casual atmosphere to make it relaxed and enjoyable. I don’t mean to imply that you should be dressed up to go to a kissaten but if it so happened that you were in your ‘Sunday best’ you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place and you can still feel that sense of occasion that comes with more formal dining, even if you just popped in to have coffee with a friend.
Today, while the number of kissaten has decreased, there remains a dedicated following of enthusiasts who value the rich history and cultural significance of these charming establishments.
History of kissaten in Japan
The history of kissaten dates back to the Meiji era (1868–1912) when Japan was undergoing a period of rapid modernisation and Westernisation.
Coffee culture was introduced to Japan by European and American influences and coffee shops started to emerge as social spaces.
During the Showa era (1926–1989), kissaten became popular meeting places for intellectuals, artists and individuals seeking a quiet space to engage in conversation or enjoy a cup of coffee.
Because of this, many kissaten establishments retained a retro aesthetic and a commitment to serving high-quality beverages and homemade snacks. They have played a significant role in shaping Japanese coffee culture, influencing the development of unique coffee styles and introducing a blend of Western and Japanese culinary elements.
While modern coffee chains such as Starbucks, Excelsior and Tulley’s have become prevalent in Japan, small independent kissaten continue to hold a special place in the hearts of those who appreciate their nostalgic charm and commitment to craftsmanship.
Culinary delights of kissaten
Apart from providing a warm and inviting ambiance, kissaten have developed a focus on serving carefully brewed coffee, high-quality tea and a range of Western influenced comfort foods like sandwiches, pasta, homemade cakes, pastries and cute desserts such as ice cream sundaes and parfait.
One of these dishes is the famous ‘naporitan’ (Neopolitan) spaghetti, a Japanese-Western fusion that has little to do with Naples or traditional Italian cuisine! The spaghetti sauce is made with onions, ham and tomato ketchup and is a uniquely Japanese take on a European dish.
Other dishes you might find on the menu include:
- Katsu sando, a popular Japanese sandwich featuring a breaded and fried pork or chicken cutlet with cabbage and delicious tonkatsu sauce.
- Tamago sando, a sandwich with tamagoyaki, a slightly sweet Japanese omelette seasoned with dashi and soy sauce.
- Curry rice, a hearty dish featuring a rich curry sauce served over rice. It's a comfort food staple in many kissaten.
- Omu-rice, another comforting dish of Japanese rice wrapped in a thin omelette, often served with a bright red blob of tomato ketchup on top.
You can also find many delicious and fancy desserts at a traditional kissaten, including:
- Dorayaki, sweet pancakes filled with anko red bean paste, a delightful and iconic Japanese sweet.
- Taiyaki, fish-shaped griddled pancakes with sweet red bean paste, custard or chocolate fillings.
- Anmitsu, a traditional Japanese dessert featuring agar jelly cubes, sweet red bean paste, fruit and a scoop of ice cream.
- Ice cream sundaes and elaborate parfaits, with layers of ice cream, fruit, whipped cream and other toppings.
If you are in Tokyo, some famous kissaten that you might like to visit are:
- Parlour Kimuraya (Shimbashi): Established in 1932, this kissaten exudes vintage charm with its velvet seats, antique clocks, and even a fake food display out front. It was a favourite haunt of writers and intellectuals during the Showa era.
- Coffee Shop Galant (Ueno): A favourite among locals, this cosy haven boasts hand-brewed coffee, delicious sandwiches, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
- Kayaba Coffee (Yanaka): Nestled in Yanaka's charming historical district, this kissaten has been serving up aromatic coffee and homemade desserts since 1938.
Kissaten for modern times
As is the way currently, it’s difficult for these small businesses to compete in a world dominated by chain cafés and the reliance on digital connections, negating the need for 'real world' meet ups.
But the enduring appeal of Japanese kissaten is undeniable.
These timeless havens of retro style and rich coffee offer a much-needed respite in busy lives and are a living testament to the enduring power of tradition and the desire for human connections.
They remind us that the simple pleasure of a cup of expertly brewed coffee, fine tea and a comforting meal shared in a warm, welcoming space still holds the magic to transport us to a different time, a different place and, most importantly, to a gentler state of being.
So, if you find yourself in Japan, why not take a little extra time to skirt passed the ubiquitous chain cafés and seek out a hidden kissaten. Let the cosiness of dark wood, soft lighting and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee help you forget the bustle of the modern world and take a quiet moment to reflect on your surroundings. Maybe even turn your phone off while you sip your drink!
Create the coffee shop ambiance at home!
Retro patterns and eclectic styles can help you get the cosy warmth of a Japanese kissaten at home.